C.C. Gideon’s mark on Custer State Park

It’s hard to come up with one favorite thing about Custer State Park, but many of the things likely on the majority of lists all have something in the common besides their location: “Cecil ‘C.C.’ Gideon’s creations in the Black Hills are as spectacular today as when they were built over 70 years ago,” describes the South Dakota Hall of Fame website, to which Gideon was inducted in 1992 in the “Historical” category. “His genius can be seen in the State Game Lodge, Pigtail Bridges, Coolidge Inn and other Southern Hills structures.”

Born in Long Lake, Minn., in 1879, Gideon went to school in Oregon and Minnesota through the eighth grade, and he eventually took a course in carpentry. He took a job as a fitter at Wayzata Boat Works, worked as a logger in Northern Minnesota, and built homes around Lake Minnetonka “for notables like the Pillsbury family,” the hall of fame states.

An architectural firm out of Minneapolis would recommend Gideon to the then-titled South Dakota State Game and Fish as a candidate to design a lodge for the department in the Black Hills, and in 1918, Gideon took a train to Rapid City to meet then-Sen. Peter Norbeck. “This meeting had a significant impact on Gideon’s life,” the articles states, and the two would remain lifelong friends.

Gideon would return to Minnesota only to pack up his family before moving to Rapid City, and work on the Custer State Park Game Lodge commenced, with construction going slowly because of the necessary time to cure the wood, cut specially for the construction at a sawmill on site, and to complete the complex rockwork.

However, the work was mostly done when the Game Lodge opened in 1921, but unfortunately, a fire destroyed that building shortly after the opening. The second lodge was rebuilt and completed in 1922, and because of his work, Gideon was invited to stay, and so for the next 27 years, he and his wife “became the ‘genial western hosts’ for patrons like the J.C. Penney’s, Guggenheims and Kresges of dime store fame. Gideon became a storyteller, guided trail rides, planned overnight camp outs into the French Creek wilderness area and arranged for visitors to participate in real western roundups,” the article states.

This was the time in history when tourism was becoming an industry for the area, and it was clear that better access was needed for tourists to reach the more scenic areas. Norbeck would lead the charge, and with Gideon and State Engineer Scovel Johnson, began mapping out roads, on foot and horseback, that they knew would be reputed for natural beauty, and these mappings eventually became Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road/U.S. Highway 16A. Tunnels along the Scenic Byway recognize their contributions: The Scovel Johnson Tunnel and the C.C. Gideon Tunnel.

One story goes that when Norbeck asked Johnson if he thought he could construct the road that became Needles Highway, Johnson’s reply was, “If you can furnish me enough dynamite, I can.” Johnson also contributed to the layout of the Sylvan Lake area, in addition to the work on the roadways within Custer State Park.

Gideon designed the pigtail bridges on Iron Mountain Road and is described on the scenic byway website: “Gideon’s pigtail bridge design was critical to the construction of the road. These bridges were unique in design because they could safely accommodate sudden elevation changes while complimenting the natural beauty of the Black Hills. The pigtail bridges also forced travelers to drive slowly and take in the scenery of the Black Hills. This was precisely Norbeck and Gideon’s vision for the highway.”

Coolidge Inn is also on Gideon’s list of accomplishments – built in 12 days! That was about all the time the park service employees had to prepare for President Calvin Coolidge’s entourage and Secret Service detail during the 1927 visit.  

“Of all his accomplishments, Gideon will probably be remembered best for the part he played in Custer State Park’s development,” the hall of fame states. “He was part superintendent, gamekeeper, warden, herdsman, fence tender, public and community relations director, and a property procurement director. Many of the animals seen today, such as the wild turkeys, mountain goats, mountain sheep and antelope, were introduced to the park by Gideon.”

His mark is definitely visible all over Custer State Park!

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